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Turkish PM: Syria plane was carrying Russian-made munitions

Burhan Ozbilici / AP

People speak from the top of the steps of a Syrian passenger plane that was forced by Turkish jets to land in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday. Turkish jets on Wednesday forced the Syrian Air Airbus A320 passenger plane to land on suspicion that it was carrying weapons, amid heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria that have sparked fears of a wider regional conflict.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that a Syrian passenger plane forced to land in Ankara was carrying Russian-made munitions destined for Syria's defense ministry.

Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency earlier quoted an official at the Russian Embassy in Ankara as saying that the cargo "was not of Russian origin." Rosoboronexport, which handles most of Russia's military export contracts, said none of its cargo was on the plane.

Turkish authorities ordered the Syrian Air passenger plane that was traveling from Moscow to Damascus to land late on Wednesday after receiving an intelligence tip-off and seized some of its cargo

Damascus said intercepting the Syrian Air plane was an act of piracy, further heightening tensions between the neighbors after Turkey's chief of staff warned Ankara would use greater force if shells from Syria continued to hit Turkish territory. The plane's 37 passengers and crew were allowed to continue to Damascus after several hours, without the cargo. 

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The grounding of the plane was another sign of Ankara's growing assertiveness over the crisis in Syria.

"Turkey has crossed a new threshold," said former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies think-tank. 

"With the action they took last week the government is in the slightly more comfortable position of having shown it has the strength to retaliate." 

Turkish state-run television TRT had reported that the intercepted plane was carrying military communications equipment, according to The Associated Press.

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Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, also reported there were 10 containers aboard the plane, some containing radio receivers, antennas and "equipment... thought to be missile parts." 

Neither TRT nor Yeni Safak cited sources for their reports. 

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had said the cargo contained "elements ... that are not legitimate in civilian flights" and insisted Ankara was within its rights to intercept the plane if it suspected that military equipment was being transported over Turkish territory. 

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Sabre rattling between Syria and its northern neighbor has increased in recent days after a spate of cross-border shell and mortar firings. Turkey, which has been vocal in its criticism of Assad's crackdown on the opposition, has beefed up its military presence along the 565-mile frontier after shelling from Syria killed five Turkish civilians in a border town last week. 

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The general manager of the Syrian Civil Aviation Agency also blasted Turkey's forced landing of the plane, calling it "contrary to regulations and aviation norms."

Ghaidaa Abdul-Latif told reporters in Damascus that the plane's pilots were not asked to land but were instead surprised by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, which forced them to land.

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"This action is contrary to the rules, because the pilot should be first asked to land for inspection," she said. "If he refuses, military jets would then fly to force him to land."

A Syrian Airlines engineer who was aboard, Haithan Kasser, said armed Turkish officials boarded the plane and handcuffed the crew before inspecting packages that contained electrical equipment.

Syrian plane suspected of carrying weapons forced to land in Turkey

Abdul-Latif said the officials seized some packages after presenting official documents.

Andrea Mitchell talks to Ambassador Dennis Ross about the escalating tensions between Syria and Turkey, and what both presidential candidates are saying they'll do about the situation.

She said Syria would file a complaint with international aviation authorities.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. 

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